Outside Shot

During the winter of his junior year at tiny Albion
College in Michigan, Dolph Grundman saw his basketball coach make an unusual
decision: One of the team's seldom-used forwards asked if he could skip a game
at nearby Olivet College to study for an exam. Few middle-school coaches, let
alone college coaches, would have said yes--but low-key, diplomatic Cedric
Dempsey did.

Forty years later, Dempsey is the outgoing president of the National
Collegiate Athletic Association and is widely known just as Grundman remembers
him--as a diplomat. The organization he will leave behind when his contract
expires in December is, by its own measures of success, better off than he found
it eight years ago. With lucrative television contracts for basketball, new
offices in Indianapolis, and a revamped governing structure, the NCAA will not be
slipping into irrelevancy any time soon.

But by many other measures of success, the world of college sports today is
the same disaster that Dempsey inherited in 1994--riddled with hypocrisy, at odds
with educational values, and, some argue, an increasing detriment to higher
education as a whole. The NCAA may be merely a "voluntary association" of
schools, but it is also the group charged with the oversight and administration
of intercollegiate athletics--a realm that many regard as chronically troubled.

Fairly or not, the NCAA is often held responsible for these shortcomings.
Professors note with disappointment the widening gulf between athletics and
academics; economists and a small but growing number of student-athletes call the
NCAA a cartel; college athletic departments continue to lose money. The list goes
on, but most observers agree on one thing: Although diplomatic Cedric Dempsey
was well intentioned and from time to time spoke to the big issues, he was not
the fire-breathing dynamo needed to waken the world of college sports from its
self-satisfied slumber.

Who is? A surprising number of observers believe that the answer to that
question no longer really matters. "I don't think this is a system that is
changeable very effectively from within," says Princeton professor of public
affairs Michael Danielson, who has written on sports and politics. His pessimism
is rooted in the NCAA's central contradiction: Though the organization is
supposed to protect the integrity of college sports, it is dominated by the
influence of the big-time athletic schools. These are the actors with the
strongest incentive to plow ahead with the very trend--commercialization--that
most threatens the integrity of the entire enterprise. Why would they select for
themselves a president who blows the whistle any louder than Dempsey did?

In The Game of Life, a levelheaded but damning critique of college
sports published last year, James Shulman and William Bowen demonstrated that
commercialization, among other factors, feeds a destructive athletic "arms race"
among colleges. Chasing after sports revenue and athletic prestige, schools admit
more and more athletes, in the process sapping resources from their central
academic missions and sending the unfortunate message to young people that sports
is the best way to get into college. Shulman and Bowen were raising themes that
had been trumpeted in the early 1990s by the Knight Commission, a blue-ribbon
group that recommended measures to restore the primacy of academics in college
athletics. The commission reconvened in 2001 and the following year reported that
the situation had only gotten worse.

Shulman doubts that the NCAA can break the cycle he and Bowen identified.
"They aren't able to solve problems the schools themselves aren't able to solve,"
he says. Therein lies the difficulty: The NCAA is nothing more than a collection
of schools, but by bringing more and more money into the arena through its
postseason tournaments, the association feeds colleges' worst impulses rather
than appealing to their better ones. And there's no reason to suspect that when
it comes time for the NCAA to pick a new president the association will seize the
opportunity to reverse that course. Ellen Staurowsky, an associate professor of
sport sciences at Ithaca College in New York, says that if the organization's
member schools aren't interested in cleaning up college sports, "no figurehead is
going to be successful" at doing the same thing.

Not everyone is ready to consign the NCAA presidency to irrelevancy. For those
inclined to think that it matters, there is near-unanimity on one point: The
association's next head should be, and probably will be, a college president.
(Dempsey and his predecessor were former athletics directors.) "If the director
were a former university president who had a great deal of credibility on the
national scene, it might send a different kind of message," notes Randall Webb,
president of Northwestern State University and a member of the NCAA's executive
committee, which will select the new president.

Some, however, are unconvinced. "It doesn't really matter," maintains Allen
Sack, a professor of sports management at the University of New Haven in
Connecticut. "The symbolism will not necessarily move the NCAA away from the
commercial model." Sack actually worries that the selection of a college
president will give the NCAA political cover it doesn't deserve--a built-in lip
service conferred by an academic's mere presence at the organization's helm.

A somewhat different objection is lodged by many sports economists, who
detest the NCAA, which they view as a cartel that limits the compensation of
athletes to below-market rates. In 1990, Robert Brown, an economist at California
State University-San Marcos, estimated that a top-rated NCAA men's basketball
player brought in between $700,000 and $1,000,000 in revenue per year. By
contrast, the actual value of his compensation--in the form of a scholarship--was
at most $30,000. It's the kind of gross violation of the market's free hand that
shows up in economists' nightmares.

But it's not just economists whom the next NCAA president will have to
contend with; it's also a new group of students called the Collegiate Athletes
Coalition. The group, which was recently featured on 60 Minutes, is not a
labor union--but through an informal alliance with the United Steelworkers, its
members seek better benefits for student-athletes, and they hope to dismantle
restrictions on how much money they can earn.

The schools that control the NCAA have a strong incentive to resist such
changes. If they had to compensate student-athletes at even a fraction of their
market value, men's basketball and football might no longer provide the revenue
to fund every other collegiate sport, as they currently do at many schools. "I'm
not sure if anyone knows how these guys are going to voluntarily give up some of
these revenues," says Arthur Fleisher, an economist at Metropolitan State College
of Denver. The implication? Nothing short of a student-athlete strike or a court
decision could compel such changes. And neither of these possibilities seems
likely to disrupt the status quo in the near future.

Those who see the NCAA as a potential engine for reform hope that its next
leader will be an aggressive "truth teller," in Shulman's words. While the new
president may not be able to push through ambitious reform single-handedly, at
least he or she can badger those who hold real power in the world of college
athletics--university presidents and conference commissioners--into backing down
from their intensifying arms race.

But would the NCAA ever select that kind of leader--a truth teller who would
publicly seek to shame America's colleges out of their corrosive love affair with
commercialized sports? Murray Sperber, a professor of English and American
studies at Indiana University and longtime critic of the NCAA, thinks that he has
the situation all figured out. He normally ranks among the understandably gloomy;
but speaking from Bloomington recently on a sunny day, he was, for once, feeling
optimistic. "My hope is that they could get someone who is a kind of Earl Warren
figure," he said. "Someone who could surprise people."

So this is what it has come down to for advocates of college-athletics reform:
a hope that the NCAA is about as good at selecting presidents as Eisenhower was
at selecting Supreme Court justices. And if that sounds a little desperate--it
is.

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